LGBT+ and History in the UK

In the middle of February 2019, as many historians were marking LGBT+ History month, a small team of historians under the aegis of the Royal Historical Society started work on a new investigation, focussing on the experience of LGBT+ historians and on the teaching of LGBT+ histories in UK universities. Led by Professor Frances Andrews, the Society’s first Vice-President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the first aim of this working group is to build on the outstanding efforts of those recently dedicated to Race, Ethnicity and Equality and Gender, completed in 2018. Those reports draw on large scale surveys of the profession to offer reliable data on the current situation and guidance for academic historians on how to address and diminish barriers to equality in the discipline.  We hope to create something similar.

At this stage, the working group has many more questions than answers. We recognise that, like the catch-all categories of ‘BME’ or ‘Women’ investigated in the Society’s previous reports, historians identifying as LGBT+ have different and potentially very divergent experiences. Some will be comfortable being out at work, with colleagues and/or students, others will be unable to be. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ECR historians find it particularly difficult to be out, and worry that it will affect their career prospects. As an identity that can be hidden, being gay or bi- leaves some academic historians feeling unsupported and unsure who to tell. Trans identities have been much in the news, and the controversies have probably touched many of us, even if only in discussions of gender neutral toilets or how to teach trans-histories. But how well do History departments support trans and non-binary colleagues and students and those who may identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual? What about colleagues and students who have other diverse gender or sexual identities?

When it comes to what we teach, many academic historians may be keen to teach LGBT+ histories, and will want to see those histories taught as part of the mainstream. Students may be keen to explore them. But LGBT+ historians may not want to ‘have’ to teach those histories themselves.  Are such concerns ever discussed in departmental meetings or reviewed when curriculum changes are introduced? How does it feel to be an LGBT+ academic working in a UK History Department in 2019? And how might things be improved? How do intersectional identities affect us and our students?

In the next couple of months the working group will be drawing up a questionnaire, to be circulated to fellows and members in the early summer. By then our questions will be more sharply formulated and, we hope, will offer the opportunity for a serious conversation about these issues.

In the meantime, if you have suggestions we would love to hear from you!

If you have any feedback on these initial ideas, or would like to contribute to the working group, please contact Frances Andrews by email: fea@st-andrews.ac.uk.

2nd Gender Equality Report

In 2015, we published a landmark report on Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education, which sparked significant debate across the sector. As part of our 150th anniversary – and alongside our new Race, Ethnicity & Equality working group – we have commissioned a second report, to examine strategies to improve gender equality in history schools and departments around the country. Prof. Nicola Miller (UCL), who helped lead our first report, is chairing our new working group, and introduces its work.

Nicola-Miller-300x300.jpgThere have been several big changes affecting the whole sector since our first report on Gender Equality was published in January 2015. Gender equality has moved up the agenda of policy-makers, with the Athena SWAN awards now fully available to humanities subjects. Over the same time the latests REF (Research Excellence Framework) has taken place; the new TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) has been piloted; and a KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) has been mooted. Many academic historians have been affected by structural reorganisations requiring them to locate their work in larger, multi-disciplinary units. Student feedback scores play an ever greater part in the evaluation of academics’ work. The pressures to do more, of more kinds of work, have continued to accumulate – pressures which, our last report suggested, exacerbate gender inequality.

What does not seem to have changed much is the proportion of senior roles occupied by women. The latest figures from the Equality Challenge Unit indicated that in 2016 24% of History Professors were women, compared to 21% in 2013. That 24% is the national average over all subjects. It is a single, stark indicator of the persistence of inequality. As we noted four years ago, good policies and good intentions are manifestly not enough.

But what does work? A recent BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme, ‘Why are even Women biased against Women?’, included evidence that even committed feminists can demonstrate an unconscious bias against women. They gave the example of an experiment in which senior female scientists were given a pile of applications by female applicants, but with male names on them, and vice versa. These senior women consistently rated the male-named candidates significantly higher than the female ones. The case for anonymity at shortlisting stage seems to grow stronger! But it is actually hard to determine what will improve things, with some people arguing that unconscious bias training can do more to reinforce stereotypes than to overcome them.

Times Higher Education reported in April 2017 that in one in three universities the proportion of women professors (over all subjects) was going down not up. The picture is not all bleak, however: some universities have succeeded in improving the proportion of women professors quite markedly. All such information has to be carefully contextualised, but such figures hold out hope that change for the better is both possible and potentially rapid.

In this second Gender Equality Report our main aims are to identify how much the situation has improved – if at all — and to collect evidence about which policies help, which have unexpected downsides, and which actually make things worse. So, our focus will be: What really is best practice for promoting gender equality? What actually works?

Like last time, our report will be based on a survey sent to all members and fellows of the RHS throughout the UK. We have added some new questions to reflect recent changes. This time we include questions about teaching and student evaluations. It includes an opportunity for you to tell us about any other factors you think are not covered by the questions: we are very keen to collect your ideas and views. You do not have to be a member or fellow of the RHS to complete the survey: feel free to circulate it to any historian currently employed (however precariously) in UK higher education.

Please help us to prepare the best possible report by completing this survey. It will take you 15-20 minutes. Last time we received more than 700 responses, from about 20% of the 3,500-strong profession, from early-career historians on temporary, short-term teaching contracts to senior professors. It would be fantastic to collect even more this time. The more replies we receive, the more credible the report will be. So please circulate the RHS questionnaire, discuss it, tweet about it and, most importantly of all, fill it in by 20 April 2018.

The results will be published in Autumn 2018, in coordination with a report on Race, Ethnicity & Equality written by a separate working party. We hope that both reports will contribute to much-needed debates about ending inequality and discrimination within our profession.

Prof. Nicola Miller
Chair, RHS Gender Equality Working Group

Image, top: 1907 Senior class, Oxford College for Women/Oxford Female College. Miami University (Ohio) Archives, Snyder 7861. Image in public domain.

Race, Ethnicity & Equality Group

Building on our work on gender equality for historians in UK Higher Education, the RHS has established a Race, Ethnicity & Equality (REE) Working Group to examine the challenges facing black and minority ethnic historians in UK HE. Below, Dr Sadiah Qureshi (Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham) offers her personal reflections on joining the group, and co-chairs Dr Suzanne Bardgett (Head of Research & Academic Partnerships at Imperial War Museum) & Dr Sujit Sivasundaram (Reader in World History at University of Cambridge) introduce its work.

I first rushed into the council chambers of the Royal Historical Society after taking several wrong turns in the labyrinthine buildings of University College London. I made my apologies to everyone at the meeting and began hurriedly taking in the room full of overflowing hardwood bookcases. My eyes soon caught all the photographic portraits of former RHS presidents that line three of the walls. My stomach flipped, my heart sank and I stopped short as I looked around in disbelief. There was only one woman and everyone was white.

I find such experiences profoundly disheartening as, cumulatively, they are a continual reminder that both women and people of colour have been historically excluded from the discipline that I love. It is now twenty years since I began my undergraduate studies. Over two decades, I have only ever met two female professors of colour working as historians within Britain and a handful of men of colour. My identities as a brown woman barely register within the highest ranks of my profession and it is even worse for aspiring black academics.

My experiences are not surprising when you consider that the Equality Challenge Unit’s staff statistical report of 2016 shows that of the 3475 historians at British universities only 205, or 5.8%, were from a ‘BME’ background. That number alone ought to give us pause but cannot capture the everyday experience of being the only person of colour in one’s department or never coming across somebody who shares your identity at conferences or the professoriate.

I have chosen to contribute to this working group because I want to see problems relating to race and ethnicity within history more widely acknowledged, understood and remedied. Following the model of the RHS Gender Report, the REE working group has been compiling a survey for all historians, arranging for a pilot of the survey, made plans to hold workshops on the results and we will write a report of our findings to be released next year. I am optimistic that we can collate some of the most detailed data available on race and ethnicity within British history. I hope our findings help secure the lasting change our profession needs.

Dr Sadiah Qureshi, University of Birmingham

You can read more of Dr Qureshi’s thoughts on racial and gender inequality in UK HE in her recent article for Media Diversified.


Inequality remains a major challenge for historians in UK higher education. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) historians remain severely underrepresented at all academic levels, while curriculums and research – and the libraries and archives that support them – often fail to reflect the rich histories of racial and ethnic minority groups. The Royal Historical Society has established a Race, Ethnicity & Equality (REE) Working Group to identify barriers to equality and diversity in the discipline of history, spearhead positive change in the environments in which historians of colour in the UK work, and enhance the wider practice and discipline of History by increasing the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in university-level teaching, research and public engagement.

We will soon be launching a wide-ranging questionnaire to collect data and experiences from across History departments and researchers in the UK. As our work proceeds, we will identify particular ‘pressure points’ (for example undergraduate to postgraduate; doctoral candidate to early career) for more sustained examination of racial and ethnic inequalities. In dialogue with the RHS’s Gender Working Group (and conscious of the importance of intersectionality), we will seek to provide university departments/schools/faculties, and other institutions involved in historical research and dissemination, with robust data on the current state of the discipline with regard to race and ethnicity, and to create a platform for promoting meaningful change.

The launch of the group comes alongside the Society’s 150th anniversary, and our reflections on the past, present, and future of the discipline of History. RHS President Margot Finn explored the Society’s own imperial past in her recent Presidential address, and we are conscious of how changes in curriculums, teaching, and research are vital to presenting broader and more diverse narratives of the past, and to engaging the widest possible set of students, communities, and publics.

Suzanne Bardgett & Dr Sujit Sivasundaram
Co-chairs, RHS Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group

Image: RHS President Margot Finn (centre) with some of the members of the REE workng group; (L-R, back) Dr Sujit Sivasundaram, Dr Christopher Kissane, Dr Adam Budd, Suzanne Bardgett, (L-R, front) Dr Sadiah Qureshi, Professor Margot Finn, Dr Jonathan Saha.